Wednesday, April 1st, 2020
A reading of The Enormous Space by J.G. Ballard
Staying at home triggered a memory for me. I remembered reading a short story many years ago. It was by J.G. Ballard, and it described a man who makes the decision not to leave the house.
Being a J.G. Ballard story, it doesn’t end there. Over the course of the story, the house grows and grows in size, forcing the protaganist into ever-smaller refuges within his own home. It really stuck with me.
I tried tracking it down with some Duck Duck Going. Searching for “j.g. ballard weird short story” doesn’t exactly narrow things down, but eventually I spotted the book that I had read the story in. It was called War Fever. I think I read it back when I was living in Germany, so that would’ve been in the ’90s. I certainly don’t have a copy of the book any more.
But I was able to look up a table of contents and find a title for the story that was stuck in my head. It’s called The Enormous Space.
Alas, I couldn’t find any downloadable versions—War Fever doesn’t seem to be available for the Kindle.
Then I remembered the recent announcement from the Internet Archive that it was opening up the National Emergency Library. The usual limits on “checking out” books online are being waived while physical libraries remain closed.
I found The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard and borrowed it just long enough to re-read The Enormous Space.
If anything, it’s creepier and weirder than I remembered. But it’s laced with more black comedy than I remembered.
I thought you might like to hear this story, so I made a recording of myself reading The Enormous Space.
Sunday, March 29th, 2020
Reading The Fabric Of Reality by David Deutsch.
Tuesday, March 24th, 2020
RSS: now more than ever!
You get to choose what you subscribe to in your feed reader, and the order in which the posts show up. You might prefer to read the oldest posts first, or the newest. You might group your feeds by topic or another priority. You are not subjected to the “algorithmic feed” of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, where they choose the order for you.
Thursday, March 19th, 2020
COVID-19 has really made me realize that we need to be grateful for the people and activities we take for granted. Things like going out for food, seeing friends, going to the gym, etc., are fun, but are not essential for (physical) survival.
It reminds of Brian Eno’s definition of art: art is anything we don’t have to do. It’s the same with social activities. We don’t have to go to concerts—we can listen to music at home. We don’t have to go the cinema—we can watch films at home. We don’t have to go to conferences—we can read books and blog posts at home. We don’t have to go out to restaurants—all our nutritional needs can be met at home.
But it’s not the same though, is it?
I think about the book Station Eleven a lot. The obvious reason why I’d be thinking about it is that it describes a deadly global pandemic. But that’s not it. Even before The Situation, Station Eleven was on my mind for helping provide clarity on the big questions of life; y’know, the “what’s it all about?” questions like “what’s the meaning of life?”
Part of the reason I think about Station Eleven is its refreshingly humanist take on a post-apocalyptic society. As I discussed on this podcast episode a few years back:
It’s interesting to see a push-back against the idea that if society is removed we are going to revert to life being nasty, brutish and short. Things aren’t good after this pandemic wipes out civilisation, but people are trying to put things back together and get along and rebuild.
Related to that, Station Eleven describes a group of people in a post-pandemic world travelling around performing Shakespeare plays. At first I thought this was a ridiculous conceit. Then I realised that this was the whole point. We don’t have to watch Shakespeare to survive. But there’s a difference between surviving and living.
I’m quite certain that one positive outcome of The Situation will be a new-found appreciation for activities we don’t have to do. I’m looking forward to sitting in a pub with a friend or two, or going to see a band, or a play or a film, and just thinking “this is nice.”
Reading Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan.
Thursday, March 5th, 2020
Reading A Short History Of Irish Traditional Music by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin.
Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020
Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu
I got an email a little while back from Michael at Repeater Books asking me if I wanted an advance copy of Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology From Capitalism by Wendy Liu. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I said “Sure!”
I’m happy to say that the book is most excellent …or at least mostly excellent.
Contrary to what the book title—or its blurb—might tell you, this is a memoir first and foremost. It’s a terrific memoir. It’s utterly absorbing.
Just as the most personal songs can have the most universal appeal, this story feels deeply personal while being entirely accessible. You don’t have to be a computer nerd to sympathise with the struggles of a twenty-something in a start-up trying to make sense of the world. This well-crafted narrative will resonate with any human. It calls to mind Ellen Ullman’s excellent memoir, Close to the Machine—not a comparison I make lightly.
But as you might have gathered from the book’s title, Abolish Silicon Valley isn’t being marketed as a memoir:
Abolish Silicon Valley is both a heartfelt personal story about the wasteful inequality of Silicon Valley, and a rallying call to engage in the radical politics needed to upend the status quo.
It’s true that the book finishes with a political manifesto but that’s only in the final chapter or two. The majority of the book is the personal story, and just as well. Those last few chapters really don’t work in this setting. They feel tonally out of place.
Don’t get me wrong, the contents of those final chapters are right up my alley—they’re preaching to the converted here. But I think they would be better placed in their own publication. The heavily-researched academic style jars with the preceeding personal narrative.
Abolish Silicon Valley is 80% memoir and 20% manifesto. I worry that the marketing isn’t making that clear. It would be a shame if this great book didn’t find its audience.
The book will be released on April 14th. It’s available to pre-order now. I highly recommend doing just that. I think you’ll really enjoy it. But if you get mired down in the final few chapters, know that you can safely skip them.
Tuesday, February 25th, 2020
Reading Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu.
Thursday, February 13th, 2020
Reading The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Monday, February 3rd, 2020
In Lurking, Joanne McNeil digs deep and identifies the primary (if sometimes contradictory) concerns of people online: searching, safety, privacy, identity, community, anonymity, and visibility. She charts what it is that brought people online and what keeps us here even as the social equations of digital life—what we’re made to trade, knowingly or otherwise, for the benefits of the internet—have shifted radically beneath us. It is a story we are accustomed to hearing as tales of entrepreneurs and visionaries and dynamic and powerful corporations, but there is a more profound, intimate story that hasn’t yet been told.
Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson will be published on May 12th:
Henry Every was the seventeenth century’s most notorious pirate. The press published wildly popular—and wildly inaccurate—reports of his nefarious adventures. The British government offered enormous bounties for his capture, alive or (preferably) dead. But Steven Johnson argues that Every’s most lasting legacy was his inadvertent triggering of a major shift in the global economy. Enemy of All Mankind focuses on one key event—the attack on an Indian treasure ship by Every and his crew—and its surprising repercussions across time and space. It’s the gripping tale one of the most lucrative crimes in history, the first international manhunt, and the trial of the seventeenth century.
How To Future: Leading and Sense-Making in an Age of Hyperchange by Scott Smith with Madeline Ashby will be published on July 3rd:
Successfully designing for a future requires a picture of that future—a useful map of the horizons ahead that can be used for wayfinding, identifying emerging opportunities or risks. Accurately developing this map means investing in better awareness of signals about the future, understanding trends in context, developing rich insights about what those signals indicate—relative to companies, people, citizens or stakeholders. It also means cultivating ways to share these future insights through tangible yet provocative scenarios or stories, turn these into prototypes, or connect them to strategies.
Monday, January 27th, 2020
Reading The Human Use Of Human Beings: Cybernetics And Society by Norbert Wiener.
Thursday, January 23rd, 2020
Books are machines for generating empathy.
Read fiction. I don’t mean “read sf to have ideas about the future.” I mean “read any form of fiction, genre or no”. Fiction allows us to have other ideas, live other lives, see other perspectives. It allows us to escape and re-consider the world from outside ourselves. It allows us to think at lengths and timescales that we may not from day-to-day. It is a shortcut to containing multitudes; to other minds.
Tuesday, January 7th, 2020
Well, this is rather lovely! The Paravel gang have made an atmospheric web book out of a Sherlock Holmes story (yay for the public domain!).
Friday, January 3rd, 2020
A look at the trend towards larger and larger font sizes for body copy on the web, culminating with Resilient Web Design.
There are some good arguments here for the upper limit on the font size there being too high, so I’ve adjusted it slightly. Now on large screens, the body copy on Resilient Web Design is 32px (2 times 1em), down from 40px (2.5 times 1em).
Tuesday, December 31st, 2019
Books I read in 2019
Once again, I tried to maintain a balance between fiction and non-fiction. It kinda worked.
Here, in order of reading, are the books I read in 2019. For calibration, anything with three stars or more means I enjoyed (and recommend) the book. I can be pretty stingy with my stars. That said…
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Kindred is a truly remarkable work. Technically it’s science fiction—time travel, specifically—but that’s really just the surface detail. This is a study of what makes us human, and an investigation into the uncomfortable reach of circumstance and culture. Superbly written and deeply empathic.
The Soul Of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder
This is a well-regarded book amongst people whose opinion I value. It’s also a Pulitzer prize winner. Strange, then, that I found it so unengaging. The prose is certainly written with gusto, but it all seems so very superficial to me. No matter how you dress it up, it’s a chronicle of a bunch of guys—and oh, boy, are they guys—making a commercial computer. Testosterone and solder—not my cup of tea.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
A thoroughly entertaining space adventure, although my favourite parts are the descriptions of the inner magic of mathematics. This is a short read too, so go ahead and give it a whirl. Recommended.
The Order Of Time by Carlo Rovelli
The writing is entertaining, sometimes arresting, though it definitely spills over into purple prose at times. As a meditation on the nature of time, it’s a thought-provoking read, but I think I prefer the gentler musings of James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Another highly-regarded book that I just couldn’t get into. That’s probably more down to me than the book. I can see how the writing is imaginative and immersive, but the end result—for me, at least—was no more than perfectly fine.
Reading this kind of reminded me of reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. They’re both perfectly fine books that were lavished with heaps of praise for their levels of imagination …which makes me think that people need to read more sci-fi and fantasy.
A Mind At Play: How Claude Shannon Invented The Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman
A terrific biography! Admittedly you’ll probably want to be interested in information theory in the first place, but how could you not?
This book could probably have been a little shorter without losing too much, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It’s a great companion to James Gleick’s The Information.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
This is like the love child of Craig Mod and Umberto Eco …and I mean that in the nicest possible way. A thoroughly entertaining genre-crossing jaunt that isn’t going to stress you out. Fun!
Inferior: The True Power Of Women and the Science that Shows It by Angela Saini
Superbly researched and deftly crafted. This is an eye-opening journey into the cultural influences on experimental science.
Resilient Management by Lara Hogan
I’m getting kind of cross with Lara now. First she writes the definitive book on web performance. Then she writes the definitive book on public speaking (I’ve loaned it out so many times, I’ve lost track of it). Now she’s gone and written the definitive book on being a manager. It hardly seems fair!
Seriously, this book is remarkably practical, right from the get-go. And the one complaint I have about most management books—that they’re longer than they need to be—definitely doesn’t apply here. If your job involves managing humans in any way, read this book!
The Future Home Of The Living God by Louise Erdrich
There’s nothing wrong with this book, per se. But I think it’s situated too much in the shadow of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to stand on its own merits.
Binti Home by Nnedi Okorafor
The second novella in the Binti series. Just as much fun as the first. I’m looking forward to reading the third and final book in the series.
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith
I really enjoyed this evolutionary tale. It’s equal parts biology and philosophy. I will never look at cephalopods quite the same way again.
Sourdough by Robin Sloan
Just as entertaining as Robin’s first book, this has a fun vibe to it.
By pure coincidence, I followed Sourdough with…
To which Robin responded:
OMG I’m so glad these books presented themselves to you together—I think it’s a great pairing, too. And certainly, some of Ed’s writing about microbes was in my head as I was writing the novel!
I Contain Multitudes is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining work. You might not think you want to read a book all about microbes, but trust me, you do.
I stand by this appraisal:
They’re both such wonderful books—apart from the obvious microbial connection, there’s a refreshingly uncynical joy infusing the writing of each of them!
Rosewater by Tade Thompson
An first-contact novel with a difference. The setting, the characters, the writing—everything is vivid and immersive. I’m looking forward to reading more in this series.
Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker
The sheer joy of the writing is infectious. If you’ve got some long-haul flights ahead of you, this is the perfect reading material.
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
This has stayed with me. This is Ann Leckie’s first foray into more of a fantasy realm, and it’s just as great as her superb science fiction.
Internal consistency is key to world-building in works of fantasy, and this book has a deeply satisfying and believable system that is only gradually and partially revealed. Encore!
The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr
This book has an unusual structure. At times, it’s like a masterclass in writing. At other times, it’s deeply personal. I don’t know quite how to classify it, but I like it!
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Brilliant, as expected. Some of the stories in here have stayed with me long after I finished reading them. If you haven’t already read this or Stories of Your Life and Others, you’re in for a real treat.
Is Exhalation quite as brilliant as Ted Chiang’s debut book of short stories? Maybe not. But that bar is so high as to be astronomical.
Now we just have to wait a few more decades for his third collection.
Motherfoclóir: Dispatches From A Not So Dead Language by Darach O’Séaghdha
I don’t know if this will be of any interest if you don’t already understand some Irish, but I found this to be good fun. There were times when an aside was repeated more than once, which made me wonder if the source material was originally scattered in other publications.
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
An alternative history novel with a thought-provoking premise. The result is like a cross between Mercury 13 and Seveneves. There’s a dollop of wish fulfillment in here that feels like a guilty pleasure, but that’s no bad thing.
1666: Plague, War, and Hellfire by Rebecca Rideal
This is how you bring history to life! The style of writing feels much more like a historical novel than a dry academic work, but all of the events are relayed from contempary source material. The plague is suitably grim and disgusting; the sea battles are appropriately thrilling and frightening; the fire is unrelentingly devestating. I know that doesn’t sound like there’s much enjoyment to be had, but this is the best history book I’ve read in a while.
Helliconia Summer by Brian Aldiss
I know I joke about seeing pace layers everywhere but seriously, Brian Aldiss’s Heliconia series is all about pace layers. Each book deals with one point in time, where we’re concerned with the dynastic concerns of years and decades, but the really important story is happening on the scale of centuries and millennia as the seasons slowly change.
This one was just as good as Helliconia Spring and I’m looking forward to rounding out the series with Helliconia Winter.
The Canopy Of Time by Brian Aldiss
I decided to stay on a Brian Aldiss kick, and grabbed this pulpy collection of short stories. It’s not his best work, and there’s an unnecessary attempt to tie all the stories together into one narrative, but even a so-so Brian Aldiss book has got a weird and slightly haunting edge to it.
The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
The sequel to The Calculating Stars and the last in the Lady Astronaut series. Good space-race entertainment.
Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee
I’ve just picked up this sequel to Ninefox Gambit. So far it’s not as bewildering as the first book—where the bewilderment was part of its charm. I’m into it. But I won’t rate it till I’ve finished it.
Alright, time to pick my favourite fiction and non-fiction books of the year.
Certainly the best fiction book published this year was Ted Chiang’s Exhalation. But when it comes to the best book I’ve read this year, it’s got to be Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Hard to believe it’s forty years old—it’s shockingly relevant today.
As for the best non-fiction …this is really hard this year. So many great books: A Mind At Play, Inferior, 1666, Other Minds; I loved them all. But I think I’m going to have to give it to Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes.
Only 10 of the 26 books I read this year were by women. I need to work on redressing the balance in 2020.
Sunday, December 29th, 2019
Reading Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee.
Sunday, December 22nd, 2019
Reading The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal.
Thursday, December 5th, 2019
Reading The Canopy Of Time by Brian Aldiss.
Wednesday, November 13th, 2019
Reading Helliconia Summer by Brian Aldiss.